No one should ever have to live with avoidable blindness, no matter how old they are, where they live, or how much money they have. This was the principle that Fred Hollows followed his entire life and left for us to carry on.
But for a baby like Shanice, born in rural Kenya with cataract in both eyes, the stakes are especially high. She was facing an entire lifetime of permanent blindness.
Because of the tenacity of her loving parents, the skill of a surgeon trained by The Fred Hollows Foundation, and people like you who gave us the resources to reach her, Shanice’s story has a happy ending.
However, there are still an estimated 1.4 million children worldwide who are blind, half of whom have eye conditions that are treatable or preventable. In Kenya alone, where Shanice lives with her parents, there are as many as 16,000 children who are blind.
We were told this thing would go away.
- Milly and William, Shanice's parents
When Shanice was just six weeks old, her young parents, Milly and William, knew that something was wrong. They tried to play with Shanice and make her laugh, but Milly was left wondering if Shanice could even recognise her face. As Milly recalled:
“We waited and waited, and after some time saw no change, and then we decided to go to hospital. We were told that this thing would go away.”
However, after more anxiety and confusion, things didn’t improve. Milly was told Shanice would need an eye operation. Living in a small one-room home in rural Kenya, Milly and William are extremely poor. Earning less than HKD$16 a day, they knew they couldn’t afford the surgery or even the travel to the distant hospital.
By now Shanice was nine months old, and living at risk of permanent blindness. Almost three quarters of a child’s early learning is through vision. As time passes, surgical intervention may no longer work - a child will permanently lose the ability to see.
Milly and William knew they couldn’t afford surgery for their little girl.
Despite all of the odds against them, Milly was determined. She found a local doctor who said there were people who could help – The Fred Hollows Foundation – and that Shanice could receive surgery at Sabatia Eye Hospital, our partners in Kenya.
Sabatia is about four hours drive from their home, a trip Milly had to make with her baby girl.
Milly and William’s apprehension was shared by Dr Ernest Ollando, a Paediatric Eye Surgeon.
“For every surgery, there is that element of caution because if something goes wrong and you don’t give the child the best vision, they are going to be blind for the rest of their life, which could be 70, 80, 90 years,” he said. “So, for small children it’s an additional responsibility to do the best surgery you can. I’m very happy with the outcome, the surgery in both eyes went very well.”
But one thing is certain: having surgery is crucial.
Dr Ollando knew that if he didn’t operate on Shanice as soon as possible, she was at risk of being blind forever.
Without early intervention, her brain would not develop properly and even if she received surgery later she would likely always struggle to see.
Thankfully, Shanice received surgery by the time she was nine months old. Milly was overcome with emotion as her little girl was carried into the surgery; pacing the hospital’s halls and crying throughout the hour-long operation, Milly’s fear was understandable. The experienced staff comforted and reassured her that Shanice was in good hands.
The day after surgery, the recovery room was filled with Shanice’s cries as, tightly cradled in Milly’s arms, the patches were removed from her eyes. Then, there was silence as this little girl, just nine months old, saw the world – and her mother – for the first time.
Dr Ollando couldn’t contain his excitement, and said there was no better feeling than making a difference in a child’s life. Just as Fred used to say, “To help someone to see is a tremendous feeling.”
The race against time for children like Shanice.
A year after Shanice’s surgery, The Foundation returned to her remote village in western Kenya. We found a bright, joyful and animated girl, playing in her backyard, running after chickens and discovering the world around her. How different Shanice was, now that she could see and learn. Now at two years old, she can look forward to school and she will never remember a life without vision.
There are an estimated 16,000 children in Kenya who are blind, and we are racing against time to reach them and so many others around the world. Without surgery these children face a lifetime of difficulties - but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are relying on your incredible support to carry on the work Fred started.